Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Understanding of Consciousness

This was just a smaller paper that I wrote about what I think consciousness is all about. It's not the best write up but since I haven't posted anything for ages I figured it was about time to get something out to the public. Hope you enjoy and helps you to think more about the wonderful world of the brain.


Throughout history the consciousness has been a questioning concept. It has been thought to be located in different areas of the human body and recently ended up being in the human brain. With more research being conducted it should be considered that the human mind is not the only location where consciousness flows from, and that there are many different types of consciousness. From the stomach and the heart, to the brain and its many different parts, consciousness has a large spectrum of input and alterations that create the experience of the human self.

The understanding of consciousness is something that humans have always wondered about. Philosophers like Socrates and Plato argued that there were three levels to consciousness, while Descartes would describe the seat of the soul being a part of the brain called the pineal gland (Norden, 2007).

In ancient civilizations such as Egypt the pharos brains were to be disregarded, while their heart was kept for the afterlife as it was regarded as the seat of consciousness (Norden, 2007). Even at the time of the Greeks, Aristotle still considered the heart to be the epicenter of cognition. It was up until the renaissance that consciousness shifted from the heart to the brain (Norden, 2007).

Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci believed that the ventricles in the brain were the cause of cognition, as the French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes believed that the pineal gland in the brain was the seat of the soul (Norden, 2007). Still it wasn’t until the 17th century when Tomas Willis who produced some of the most comprehensive drawings of the brain as well as treated people who had brain disorders that it was believed that the all of the body’s movement and cognition was located in the brain formations (Norden, 2007). It is for this reason that Dr. Willis is considered to be the father of neuroscience (Norden, 2007).

Since the 17th century science has produced more accurate models of what creates consciousness in the human experience, but we still have yet to explain what is consciousness and where does it come from. In order to understand the complexity of the subject we need to review the sheer complexity of the human mind.


The average human brain contains about 100 billion neurons and using The Neuron Doctrine for a model of communication for those neurons, the brain has over a 100 trillion synapses to transmit information across (Norden, 2007). There are over 40 neurotransmitters that are know of that are used in order to transmit information across those synapses and scientists are continually finding more (Norden, 2007). It was recently discovered that synapses are also not static in what neurotransmitter is used for communication; this means that synapses and dendrites are able to temporarily accept and send different chemical neurotransmitters in order to send and receive information (Norden, 2007). What this all means is that the brain is the most complex system of communication that is known to man. Even in recent years neuroscientist still has little idea on how these neurons know what compounds to send as communication neurotransmitters but what scientist have been starting to understand is that the brain is not a just one big organ. The brain is a complex series of different organs together making up our sensory experience (Norden, 2007). Scientists know this because they have studied individuals who have had disorders of the brain and have changed their behavior based on the area of the brain being affected. This change that occurs, changes how the person thinks about themselves and the world around them, ultimately changing what conscious thought they had before.

Loss of Consciousness

In order to understand the complexity of consciousness scientists have been studying different ways in which consciousness has been altered. Like causing a dysfunction in a specific area of the brain for understanding different areas of the brains functions, forcibly changing someone’s consciousness has allowed for scientists to see what areas of the brain are required to be functional in order for consciousness to occur. Studying individuals in different sleep stages has also allowed for understanding of the human mind in altered states as well as the realization of different forms of consciousness.

Dreaming Consciousness

During the REM phase of sleep it was thought by Sigmund Freud that the brain was under the control of the sub-consciousness (Hobson, 2002). Allen Hobson, one of the most educated individuals in the area of sleep research, would say that the brain has no control of any kind during the sleep phase, that any type of dream is accidental (Hobson, 2002). From personal experience as well as well documented dream experiences we can see that neither Freud nor Hobson are correct, as dreams sometimes have personal subconscious meaning, as well as no meaning at all. We can further understand this subject by talking about another form of dreaming, lucid dreaming.

According to recent study on lucid dreaming, lucid dreaming is not dreaming at all, rather it’s been claimed to be another form of consciousness, such that you are neither awake, nor dreaming (Hurd, 2009). Lucid dreaming is an experience where the individual experiencing a dream becomes aware that they are dreaming (Laberg, 1997). The real fascinating part of this occurrence is the ability to obtain full awareness while dream content continues to be experienced making seem as though two consciousness are controlling the experience, the conscious individual and the dream narrator. During the sleep phase, different areas of the brain are modulated on due to the cholergenic REM (Rapid Eye Movement) on system and off due to the serotonin REM off (hobson, 2002). Because of these two different systems, different areas of the brain are also disengaged or modulated in order for the body to experience sleep. In result the subject asleep feels different then they were before. They may not remember the experiences while they are asleep, they may not notice things are out of place, and they may not be able to move in their dreams. In contrast to dreaming and lucid dreaming, the person becomes aware, and is able to remember all of their experience, even able to purposely interact with dream characters and objects. We can see that the brain has modulated itself in another way during this state. The process of dream formation and modulation is triggered by the reticular formation located throughout the brainstem which has large influence on the thalamus and cortex of the brain (Norden, 2007). The thalamus then relays information to the cortex which results in the dream experience (Norden, 2007).

Lucid dreaming normally occurs during REM cycle, but even another type of lucid dreaming is being explored that occurs more often in stage 2 of sleep which children often experience night terrors, and adults experience nightmares or the old hag syndrome (Hufford, 1982). Also during this time frame individuals have experienced super lucid dreaming or sometimes referred to as Out of Body Experiences (Laberg, 1997). During this stage of consciousness, the individual is fully aware of his or her surroundings but somehow unable to determine what is real or fantasy. In most cases the individual is awoken in their room or place of sleep while performing a normal nightly function such as going to the bathroom and coming back to their bed relieved unnoticing to the fact that they were really dreaming. Individuals that experience this state of consciousness in a lab setting have been seen to have their eyes open but are fully in stage 2 of sleep. Hypnotic hallucinations seem to follow this area of sleep and since the dreaming is occurring as such an early state of sleep, the amygdalae is still overly activated causing strong emotion most commonly fear (Hobson, 2002). In result most super lucid states are preceded by some type of nightmarish hallucination.
During super lucid dreaming the consciousness is once again altered in some way, making it so that the dreaming is unable to awake from the dream, causing them to experience dream characters and a dream environment. Unlike normal lucid dreaming states the thalamus seems to be modulated the brain in a different way, allowing for clear understanding of the surroundings. This could be because the possible still partially activation of the serotonin REM off system.

Drug Induced Consciousness

Much like dreaming, drug induced altered consciousness has many of the same factors contributing to the experience of hallucinations. With psychedelics the individual experiences dream like narration where they have the conscious self and many different dream characters which in doughtily are another aspect of the self (Shanon, 2002). Since not much research has been done in the United States on the use of psychedelics, it is assumed that many of the same areas of the brain are activated in some way as they are in dreaming, however due to individuals clarity and memory of the experience, super lucid dreaming model is a more realistic prospective of the experience (Shanon, 2002).

Other forms of Consciousness

There have been recent studies done on the stomach and how it communicates with the brain. According to the chairman of the department of anatomy and cell biology at Columbia, the stomach contains about 75% of the total amount of neurotransmitter serotonin in the body and sends the serotonin to the brain as a form of communication, It is all probable that the neurons in the stomach act much like the neurons in the brain and are able to communicate some type of processes to the brain much like any area of the brain (Brown, 2005). For this reason it can be hypothesized that other parts of the human body that contains a substantial amount of neurons may be able in some way to impact consciousness. This theory is further supported by how some indigenous tribes from around the world have tradition where they believe the stomach to be the center of emotion much like the heart in other cultures. It is also interesting that the heart is thought to contain a microscopic cluster of neurons that much like the stomach relays information to the brain rather than the brain to the heart (Madurasinghe, 2008). It could be said that this gives rise to the reasons that for such a long period of time, culture believed cognition was in other areas of the body other than the brain.

Consciousness Redefined

Consciousness is not a static object. It constantly changes with its involvement of memories; areas of the brain currently modulated or demodulated, and only seem to stop responding when an individual has no more brain function only due to reticular formation damage. Consciousness can be experienced by the same individual different ways through hypnosis, dreaming, drug alterations, and dysfunctions of the brain. During those experiences, would we say that the person that is experiencing those events is the same person? The answer is of course yes, but just a different aspect of that person. It is for this reason that it should be proposed that consciousness is not located in just one area of the human mind, but many different areas. Consciousness seems to be a joint effort or many different areas of the brain in phase with another, creating the individual and individual’s experience. Individuals with disorders where they experience schizophrenia are simply experiencing another out of phase interaction with a different number of neurons or areas of the brain. Like schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder the same experience is depicted during the dreaming process. The only real difference is that the person is awake and under normal circumstances, the phasing in of neurons would not happen. Talking to one’s self is also a good depiction of one area of the brain being in phase and another being in a different phase as two different thought processes are taking place at the same time. They are two different consciousnesses speaking together in order to create the world around them as like in dreaming with the narrator effect.


The current understanding of the complexity of the brain and the ability of the brain bypass our experimental ability. Because of this we are unable to understand how the brain works in my different areas, consciousness being one of those. In order to further to expand on what we currently know about consciousness there needs to be some type of movement in the direction of altered consciousness studies. These studies can be done with further lucid dreaming experimentations, drug induced alterations, or with individuals whose disorders demonstrate consciousness type disorders. This area of study is important in understanding why humans act the way they do and think the way they do.


Brown, H. (2005, August 23). The other Brain also deals with many woes . The Other Brain Also Deals With Many Woes , Retrieved from

European Science Foundation (2009, July 29). New Links Between Lucid Dreaming And Psychosis Could Revive Dream Therapy In Psychiatry. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 7, 2009, from¬ /releases/2009/07/090728184831.htm

Hobson, A. J. (2002). The Dream Drugstore: Chemically Altered States of Consciousness. MIT Press.

Hufford, D. (1982). The Terror that comes in the night . Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Hurd, R. (2009, September 19). Lucid dreaming: a hybrid of rem and waking cognition. Retrieved from

LaBerg, Stephen, & Rheingold, Howard (1997). Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming.Ballantine Books.

Madurasinghe, L. (2008, June 15). The other Brain also deals with many woes . The Other Brain Also Deals With Many Woes , Retrieved from

Norden, J. (2007). Understanding the brain. Westfields, VA: The Teaching Company.

Shanon, B. (2002). The Antipodes of the mind. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press. (Shanon, 2002)

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